Tag Archives: Inside Google

Two Googlers meet for the first time at I/O

Mike Pegg has never missed an I/O. “There’s a magic about it,” he says. “It’s sort of like seeing Google come to life, right?” Mike leads Developer Relations for the Google Maps Platform team, and when we spoke via Google Meet a few days before I/O, he was gearing up to present at the conference from his Bay Area home. Gearing up, literally.

“My tech check for my AMA will happen...right here,” he says looking around his desk at home. “I literally had a suitcase sent to me with all my camera gear and microphones. I even bought some ethernet cabling so I’m not competing with my son’s gaming on our WiFi!” 

While Mike’s AMA would broadcast from his home, up until recently he thought he wouldn’t physically make it to I/O this year. Then he heard there would be a (small) audience. “I was so excited to take part, I just wanted to help out in whatever way I could.” Speakers who would be on stage at the Mountain View campus nominated colleagues to be audience members — and Mike was one of about 35 Googlers selected to sit in the audience at I/O

As was Lamon Bethel, a visual designer. Unlike Mike, Lamon had never been to I/O — in fact, he’d never been to the Mountain View campus. Based in San Francisco, he’s only been working at Google for about nine months. “The invite was sort of mysterious,” Lamon says. “It was like a Friday or Saturday and I was going through my inbox and there was this totally nondescript, cryptic email saying I’d been nominated to sign up to attend I/O.” At first he thought it was a joke — he was so new at Google, and he wasn’t a developer. He signed up anyway and soon enough, found out that he would be on site for I/O  with the small audience group. 

A person’s hand holding a plastic bag. The clear bag has a red mask inside.

 Audience members each received face masks upon arrival.

Lamon would be diving head first into the world of Google — as well as into the now-unique experience of seeing so many people at the same time. “It was energizing just to be in touch with all the I/O folks throughout the planning process,” he said before the event. “When I’m actually in the presence of other people, and seeing the presenters...I’m so curious what that will feel like!” 

When I talked to Mike and Lamon a few days before I/O, it was the first time they “met,” though they knew they would both be in the audience. They don’t work in the same department, so it’s likely that even if they’d been working in offices this year, their paths wouldn’t have crossed. But both of them said they couldn’t wait to be on site at I/O, experiencing an event happening in front of them, in real life. 

Of course, they were also just looking forward to meeting. “I can’t wait to meet you, Lamon!” Mike said during our call. “This will be so cool. It will almost be like your first day at Google.” 

By all accounts, it was a good one. “The energy of the speakers, the audience members was great — it was such a seamless day,” Lamon says. Lamon got to meet coworkers for the first time, and Mike was reunited with people he’s worked with for years. “It was pretty special to not only reconnect, but also experience the magic of the I/O keynote together!”

And Lamon and Mike also met — in person — even though they were seated at different stages. “But when we had breaks and during lunch and breakfast, we found time to connect,” Lamon says. “He’s someone that I feel like I’ll always have this really unique bond with after having gone through that I/O experience together,” Mike says.

This new emoji has been years in the making

When Jennifer Daniel, Google’s creative director for emoji, first joined the Unicode Technical Committee, she wondered, what’s the deal with the handshake emoji? Why isn’t there skin tone support? “There was a desire to make it happen, and it was possible to make it happen, but the group appeared to be stuck on how to make it happen,” Jennifer says.

Image shows a texting keyboard with various hand emojis with the Black skin tone, except the handshake emoji, which is yellow only.

So in 2019, she submitted the paperwork for Unicode to consider the addition of the multi-skin toned handshake.The proposal detailed how to create 25 possible combinations of different skin tones shaking hands. But encoding it all would be time-consuming; creating a new emoji can take up to two years, Jennifer explains. And while a regular, one-tone handshake emoji already existed, this particular addition would require making two new emoji hands (a right hand in all the various skin tone shades and a left in the various skin tone shades) in order to, as Jennifer explains, “make the ‘old’ handshake new again.” 

Every Unicode character has to be encoded; it’s like a language, with a set of rules that are communicated from a keyboard to a computer so that what you see on your screen looks the way it’s supposed to. This is called binary — or all the ones and zeros behind the scenes that make up everything you see on the internet. 

Every letter you are reading on this screen is assigned a code point. The Letter A? It’s Unicode code point U+0041, Jennifer says. When you send a word with the letter “A” to someone else, this code is what ensures they will see it. “So when we want to send a 🤦,  which maps to U+1f926, that code point must be understood on the other end regardless of what device the recipient is using,” she says.

This means when one emoji can come in different forms — like with gender or skin tone options — the coding gets more complex. “If emoji are letters, think of it this way: How many accent marks can you add to a letter? Adding more detail, like skin tone, gender or other customization options like color, to emoji gets more complicated.” Adding skin tone to the handshake emoji meant someone had to propose a solution that operated within the strict limitations of how characters are encoded.

That someone was Jennifer. “I build on the shoulders of giants,” she quickly explains. “The subcommittee is made up of volunteers, all of whom are generous with their expertise and time.” First, Jennifer looked at existing emoji to see if there were any that could be combined to generate all 25 skin tone combinations. “When it appeared that none would be suitable — for instance, 🤜 🤛 are great but also a very different greeting — we had to identify new additions That’s when we landed on adding a leftwards hand and a rightwards hand.” Once these two designs and proposals were approved and code points assigned, the team could then propose a multi-skin toned handshake that built on the newly created code for each hand.

Image showing the handshake emoji in various skin tones and skin tone combinations.

Aside from the actual coding, COVID-19 added new hurdles. Jennifer had proposed the emoji in November 2019 with the expectation it would land on devices in 2021, but because of COVID-19, all Unicode deployments were delayed six months. 

Fortunately, the multi-skin toned handshake emoji should appear in the next release, Emoji 14.0, meaning you should see it appear in 2022. For Jennifer, it’s exciting to see it finally come to fruition. “These kinds of explorations are really important because the Unicode Consortium and Google really care about bringing inclusion into the Unicode Standard,” she says. “It’s easy to identify ‘quick solutions’ but I try to stop and ask what does equitable representation really look like, and when is it just performative?”  

“Every time we add a new emoji, there’s a risk it could exclude people without our consciously knowing it,” Jennifer explains. “The best we can do is ensure emoji continue to be as broad, flexible and fluid as possible. Just like language. Just like you. 🦋”

Sleeping on the job: How we built the new Nest Hub

When Dr. Logan Schneider was in medical school, he didn’t get much sleep. “Residency training is a horribly draining experience where you get something like...four hours of sleep a night,” he says. It was during this time he realized how little we really know about sleep.

“I started prioritizing my own sleep, and also my wife’s and my kids’ — they’re sleeping champs!” he says. (In fact, his friends with newborns often turn to him when their babies won't sleep through the night.) Originally focusing on neurology in medical school, Logan soon became so fascinated by what he was learning about sleep that he decided to study it specifically.

Dr. Schneider is part of the Google Health team that coupled sensor research with sleep science to power contactless sleep sensing in the new Nest Hub, available beginning today. Sleep Sensing, powered by Soli technology, uses a tiny, low-energy radar system to sense motion at the micrometer level. Small motions ranging from breathing to movements are detected, while identifying features like faces aren’t, to give people information about their sleep duration, routines and quality. From this data, the Nest Hub can offer personalized suggestions like waking up at a consistent time, or exercising earlier in the day.

“When we started thinking about the second-generation Nest Hub, we noticed that nearly a quarter of people currently using Nest Hubs put their devices in their bedrooms,” says product manager Ashton Udall. “So we started to look into how we could bring more value to that part of the home.” When the Nest team surveyed users about what else they could do to make the device better for bedrooms, the top request, hands down, was for assistance with their sleep. Combined with trends showing people are getting less sleep and worse sleep, there was an obvious opportunity to help.

“It’s so exciting to be in this field right now because there are so many things we’re discovering about sleep,” says Dr. Raman Malhotra from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, who advised the Nest team throughout the development process. What the medical field is learning about sleep isn’t the only exciting thing, though. Dr. Malhotra also says it’s the fact that technology companies are increasingly interested in democratizing sleep research and helping more and more people understand their sleep. 

The number of combinations and permutations we tested in Forty Winks...it’s unfathomable. Dr. Logan Schneider

For both doctors and patients, sleep is a “black box,” as both Dr. Malhotra and Dr. Schneider explain it; if you go to a doctor and say you’re not sleeping well, it’s not as if you can give much more information than that. You know how you feel the next day, but not necessarily why. “Traditionally, we’d bring someone into a sleep lab to measure their sleep with something called a polysomnogram which is the gold standard for certain sleep disorders — but the polysomnogram has limitations, too,” says Dr. Malhotra. “Most patients don’t want to leave their house for a night and go to an unfamiliar environment. Then, of course, we’re changing what their sleep looks like — who’s going to sleep normally with wires attached to them?” And even after all that, he says, it’s difficult to learn much from just one night.

“That’s what’s so exciting about new sleep technologies,” Dr. Malhotra explains. “We can learn about how someone’s sleeping in their normal environment over a whole bunch of nights, not just one.” Plus, he says, something like the Nest Hub is accessible to far more people than a polysomnogram.

40 Winks, the sleep lab, with three beds and a bedside table set up with various Nest Hubs.

A look inside Forty Winks, Google Health’s sleep lab. 

Before the new Nest Hub could make its way into homes, the team had to get the technology ready for the real world — so into Google Health’s “sleep lab,” Forty Winks, they went. The team used the lab space to simulate various sleep environments. “There are different types of bed mattresses and frames, different types of fans, even adjustable bedside tables,” Dr. Schneider explains. “We had to create this space that we could modularly change so we could recreate as many kinds of sleeping experiences as possible. Co-sleepers, pets, different bedroom setups — all of it.” 

“The number of combinations and permutations we tested in Forty Winks...it’s unfathomable,” Dr. Schneider says. “It was incredibly complex.” For example, data was collected by the team recreating common scenarios such as reading a book or using your phone while sitting in bed, to differentiate these cases from sleep. The team also used “Chester,” a mechanical “breathing” dummy to mimic human respiration to test the Soli-based algorithms.

A dummy on a bed with a Nest Hub in the corner.

Chester, Forty Winks’s resident sleep dummy.

Given that development took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, Google Health product manager Reena Lee was initially concerned about how they would develop sleep sensing for a new hardware product while working remotely. But there was actually a silver lining in the unexpected work-from-home environment. “Googlers who were testing a beta unit at home could give real-time feedback quickly, share setup pictures, or even report issues after afternoon naps!" Reena says.

The team tested the system over hundreds of thousands of nights with thousands of people using it at home in their bedrooms. The device was also tested in a sleep clinic against polysomography, the "gold standard" Dr. Malhotra referenced, demonstrating comparable accuracy to published results for other clinical- and consumer-grade devices.

While the larger mystery of sleep likely won’t be unearthed any time soon, the team is hopeful that advancements like Sleep Sensing on the Nest Hub will help more people understand — and more importantly, prioritize — their sleep. Because, as Dr. Malhotra simply puts it, “There really is no way to replace a good night’s sleep.”

2020, finally over: Stories from Google this year

The year 2020 felt particularly sluggish—and simultaneously much, much too fast. With so many things happening in the world (and far fewer things happening in my day-to-day quarantine life), it’d be easy to forget what exactly occurred and when. 

So humor us while we—gasp!—revisit the past year a bit, and take a look at some of what we worked on here at Google. Because as slow as the year may have felt at times, what didn’t happen in 2020? 

1. As COVID-19 began to spread, we made sure that Google products were supporting people during the pandemic—and especially what Search and News could do to surface relevant, accurate information. More than once, we turned to Dr. Karen DeSalvo, our Chief Health Officer, for her insights on the pandemic, including information about the coming vaccines. In April, we partnered with Apple to use Bluetooth technology to create Exposure Notifications System, which is now being used by public health authorities in more than 50 countries, states and regions around the world to anonymously inform people if they’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

2. Part of fighting COVID-19 means supporting businesses and communities. Our $800 million commitment to small and medium-sized businesses was one of these initial efforts. We made it easier for businesses to update their profiles using Search and Maps, and gave them new ways to communicate with customers. For people who needed to find work or forge new careers, we launched a new suite of Google Career Certificate programs. We also found ways to support Black-owned businesses, with new funding for Black founders and the launch of the Black-owned business attribute for Business Profiles.

Image showing a phone with a Google business profile for Source Booksellers in Detroit pulled up. Two women are standing in the image of the business. The page has a Black-owned business attribute on it.

3. Finding jobs and helping businesses succeed was only one part of the transition: How people worked hugely changed. As more people worldwide began working from home, we shared resources to make the transition easier. Our experts offered tips on how to make your home work environment more efficient, and about their methods for fighting screen fatigue. We also investigated the “why?” behind some of the WFH feelings people everywhere were having—like why remote meetings just aren’t the same as the real thing.

4. Remote teaching isn’t the same, either. My sister, who lives with me, teaches third-grade online, and I’m completely in awe of how hard she works. This year, we offered resources on how to keep learning even without internet access. The Anywhere School introduced more than 50 new features, like a Tech ToolKit for families who need help troubleshooting, and ways for instructors to introduce polls into Meet. And we launched new tools for parents who became teachers. We also heard personal distance learning stories, and did our best to tell educators how thankful we are for their work. (Thanks, Vicki!)

5. The passage of time can be marked by eras of emoji. World Emoji Day coincided with the introduction of critters like 🦬 and 🐻‍❄️. And it really just wouldn’t be 2020 if new emoji mashups didn’t include the 😷 emoji and a few new ways to get in our feelings. Oh, my top emoji of 2020? Thanks for asking! Obviously, they were 😬, 🥴, 🙃, 💞 and 🍕.

Animated GIF showing the lion, turtle, pig, cat laughing so hard it's crying, dophin, and party emoji transitioning from the originals into the redesigned versions.

6. Masks weren’t required to welcome new augmented-reality friends into our homes. From dinosaurs to kangaroos to the Cambropachycope (I know, I know, your favorite), there was no shortage of AR-created creatures at our disposal. (A popular fictional paleven made the cut.) 

Image showing an actual cat on the floor of a living room next to an AR creation.

7. We said goodbye to earworms with the launch of Hum to Search, a new feature where anyone can hum or sing a tune and find out what song is stuck in their head. The tool was introduced during Google’s live (streamed) Search event and talked about advancements in AI that are making Search more accessible and useful. And this year, Search became more visually friendly, allowing us to do things like use Google Lens to shop or turn to AR for help with homework.

8. Search isn’t the only Google tool that’s improved leaps and bounds since its inception: Google Maps turned 15! To mark this milestone, we rolled out a fresh look and helpful new features and also looked back on the journey. The work hardly ended there: Maps and Search also debuted real-time wildfire maps and information. And as the spread of COVID-19 affected how people moved around this year, Maps released multiple new features focused on helping people stay informed and safe and make decisions around travel, and My Maps was an incredibly important resource for communities everywhere, helping people find food banks and testing sites, among so many other things.

9. “The world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change,” CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in September, announcing our latest efforts at achieving a carbon-free future, and eliminating our carbon legacy entirely. More good news: data centers are more energy efficient than ever. But small changes can make a difference, too: We shared tips on how everyone could become more sustainable at home. Other projects included hitting our hardware sustainability goals—and creating news ones—and making sure our own construction principles go above and beyond.

10. One thing we all relied on in 2020 was video calling. In May, we made Google Meet free for all—andthrough March 2021 all free Meet users can enjoy unlimited meetings without having to worry about the 60-minute time limit. Plus, a handful of new features specifically geared to help teachers with video schooling were added, and we shared tips on how to make sure video conferences are accessible to everyone. And I set my grandma up with a Nest Hub Max so we can video chat, and Google partnered with senior care centers so their residents could do the same with their families.

Image showing a Nest Hub Max sitting on a table. On the screen is an older women, looking out, smiling; in a small, picture in picture screen in the corner is a younger woman, smiling.

11. The world has been intensely focused on health during the pandemic—including mental health. We took an in-depth look at Blue Dot, an employee resource group at Google that works to normalize conversations about mental health. The Digital Wellbeing team worked on giving you more control and transparency over selfies, and Search launched an anxiety self-assessment tool. On a more personal level, Googler Carly Schwartz shared her journey to sobriety, and how Google tools can help others who are looking for help.

12. Despite the challenges of 2020, Googlers continued doing amazing things. We met Fabiana Fregonesi, a scuba diver who photographs and advocates for sharks, and Sarah Torney, who used old family photos to take us to turn-of-the-century San Francisco. And of course, in true 2020 fashion, more than a few Googlers came up with creative new hobbies for their time spent at home. Speaking of fashion: AI Engineer Dale Markowitz showed us how to use machine learning to create your own stylist.

Animated GIF showing a current day San Francisco bus. The screen moves into a black and white photo of turn of the century San Francisco and shows a cable car on the same street.

All this just skims the surface: We also talked about what it’s like to work at home with our dogs and offered mobile photography tips—and yes, while time became more and more of a construct, it really was just this year that we introduced new Pixel phones and Nest devices

But with all that said, I think it’s time to say goodbye to this year. Farewell, 2020, and thanks for giving us plenty to write about. Here’s to ending the year on a grateful note, and looking forward to the next one with hope. 

20 years of Year in Search

Twenty years ago, Google published its very first end-of-year list, called the Year-End Google Zeitgeist. Looking back, it’s clear how much some things have changed (please see the list of the top 10 MP3 music resources), and how much they stay the same (decades later and we’re still watching some of these sitcoms). 

Originally, these year-end lists evolved out of an internal project, eventually becoming the annual, public-facing report in 2001. “It's not a million miles away from what we do now,” says Google Data Trends editor Simon Rogers, looking back on that very first site. 

The original year-end collection wasn’t just created as a way for people to reflect on Search trends; it was also a way for people, including those who work in marketing or media, to find interesting stories and understand more about the events, people and moments of a certain year. 

These days, Year in Search is accompanied by a film that showcases the emotion behind the searches and trends of the year. “We also started finding a theme—this year it’s ‘why,’ which was at an all-time high in Google Trends history,” says Simon.  

Engineer Roni Rabin has been working on Year in Search for the past eight years and she’s seen it become increasingly sophisticated over time. “It’s always a really special moment once Year in Search launches and we see the world discovering the video and the lists.” 

And this year, there’s been plenty to discover. Simon calls 2020 a “dramatically interesting year for Search.” Past topics he remembers as significant for Search trends include weather events and the 2016 election—but nothing quite compares to the communal global interests of 2020. “These big, shared moments that affect everybody, they’re pretty rare,” he says. “And just to see so many crammed into such a short period of time, one year, is pretty unusual. I haven’t really seen anything like this.”

While Year in Search has changed over the years, there’s a hopefulness about the project that’s remained. “One of the things that makes me happy every year is how alike we are,” Simon explains. “Despite how different and divided we can be, this year especially, the data really showed how much we have in common.”

Source: Search


Working from home is ruff. Dooglers make it a little better.

In December 2011, a small ceremony was held at a previously unnamed cafe at Google’s Mountain View campus. The NoName Cafe in building 43 would no longer be nameless: It would henceforth be known as Yoshka’s Cafe, in honor of Google’s original Top Dog, and the first dog to ever visit Google’s campus.

Yoshka belonged to software engineer and long-time Googler, Urs Hölzle, and his wife, Geeske. Urs first started bringing Yoshka to work in 1999, his first year at Google, when Geeske had to go to Europe for a few months. At the time, he remembers, working from home wasn’t feasible because his internet connection was too slow. “DSL was barely working, and I couldn’t leave Yoshka at home,” he says. 

Luckily, his pup was more than welcome at work. “He was a sweet dog, so the reaction was really positive,” Urs says. “There was one person in the office who was afraid of dogs, but Yoshka quickly grew on him, and he recognized that Yoshka was big but not dangerous!” Yoshka was friends with everyone, even people who delivered packages to the office.

Yoshka passed away in 2011, but his legacy lives on. Yoshka’s Cafe includes a small museum dedicated to the Leonberger who had been well-known (and loved) by Googlers. Yoshka’s favorite toy, a fluffy ball, and his collar are on display, along with his Google badge. A small plaque on the podium explains that it was Yoshka who helped Google become “a dog-friendly company.”

Yoshka

Not only are dogs still welcome at Google offices, there’s even a dog park at the Mountain View campus called The Doogleplex. Pups have become an integral part of Google culture—so much so, that even as we work from home, Googlers are still supporting that canine connection. 

One of the most important parts of Google’s dog-friendly atmosphere is the Doogler group, a Googler employee group and message board, which for some has become an even more important asset while they work from home. There are different groups for various locations, and even some for specific breeds, but the original Doogler group was created two years ago by Aida Martinez, who figured that Googlers and their pups could benefit from a centralized online forum. 

Aida has two dogs, Honey and Mia, who often accompanied her to work at the London Google offices. “I brought them to work since Mia was a 4-month-old puppy,” Aida says. “I rescued Honey when Mia was 1, and then she also started coming to the office at least once a week.” In addition to starting Dooglers, Aida also helped with dog-related events, like the London office’s puppy pop-up, where Googlers brought their pups in for other employees to take a break with. 

Googler Danielle Feller also participated in similar events held in one of the New York offices. “You signed up, and went into a room with four puppies and you could just...roll around with them for 15 or 20 minutes,” she remembers of the Puppy Therapy Program. “It was so cute!” Shortly after, Danielle started thinking about how to bring the pop-ups to more of the New York locations, and to make sure that Googlers who didn’t have dogs could be the first to benefit from some play time. 

In February, Danielle teamed up with Ann Stout and Dena Soukieh, two Googlers she’d met through the Puppy Therapy Program, to host more “puppy-pop” sessions. Danielle’s own dog, Oso, also participated, which had an added bonus for Danielle: “As great as it is to have my dog at work, when he’s at my desk, I get less done!” she says. “So many people want to come pet him and see him, so this was a nice way of giving him play time with my coworkers.” 

Oso

Oso wearing his backpack and Doogler bandana to the office. The term is so popular at Google that dog owners often get “Doogler” swag for their pets. 

Now that most Googlers are working from home, the Doogler groups have figured out ways to bring some of the company’s dog-friendly atmosphere into the home. In June, Danielle helped organized a virtual pet parade over Google Meet. “Each pet got one minute to be introduced and spend some time on screen, showcase a fun fact or trick, and then make room for the next one to be featured,” Danielle says. Slots filled up quickly, mostly with dogs, and the event also featured a shelter that was looking for foster homes and a Googler from the San Francisco office to introduce his foster dog. 

The event was a hit—and even inspired other events, including one attended by nearly 800 Googlers located in the Asia Pacific area and another for those in California (though of course, Googlers anywhere can join). Ray Lader, who works as a Community Lead in the San Francisco office, recently held the Bay Area WFH Strut with a group of coworkers, which also featured a foster agency followed by intros of Googlers’ pets. Danielle says she noticed that a benefit of time at home is that more Googlers have decided to foster and adopt pets—and those new pet parents have a great resource at their fingertips. “The Doogler group is so collaborative,” she says. “It’s just a group of people who really care about their dogs and animals in general.” 

One of those people is Max Dzitsiuk, a software engineer who works on augmented reality algorithms. While he usually works from the San Francisco office, he’s currently living and working in his home country of Ukraine. Before he moved to San Francisco to begin working at Google, he volunteered at a dog shelter in his hometown. “Once I moved to the U.S., I used some of my Google volunteer time to work at Bay Area shelters,” he says. He also joined the Doogler group. Instead of adopting, Max is dedicated to fostering dogs that he finds permanent families for; he often brought his fosters to the office. “My team liked to stop by my desk and play with the dogs.” 

Zub

Max most recently fostered Zub, who will be moving to the U.S. (where he’ll be adopted) thanks to donations from the Doogler group. “He spent all of his life in a shelter near Kyiv,” Max says. “Despite not living with people much, he’s a very gentle and loving dog.”

In the past, whenever he’s traveled back from Ukraine to San Francisco, he tries to bring back dogs to be adopted in the States. “We bring adult dogs that have very few chances to be adopted in the Ukraine,” he says. Through the group, he also helps dogs find local families. 

While in Ukraine, he’s using the Doogler group to promote the work he’s doing with rescues. He recently shared that he’s raising funds to bring four rescue dogs to the U.S. “Thanks to the Dooglers, we were able to finish up all the necessary tests and treatments the dogs needed before making their long journey,” he says. “I can’t wait to post an update about their trip. I’m so glad to be working with people who care about this issue.” 

Even while working from home, Googlers have still found ways to “bring” their dogs to work and involve them in “office” life. And given the circumstances, it seems we’re all better for it. “It’s not hard to feel happy when you just look at them. They’re so friendly and fun to be around; that’s why people have emotional support animals,” Urs explained, when I asked why dogs are such a welcome presence at Google. “It’s a good thing to have friendly faces around the office who just want to be around you and are happy to be petted and get your attention.” And the same applies to our home offices, too.

Inside the Google team that dreams up colors

How do you bring a new color to life? Just ask Isabelle Olsson, who leads Google’s Color, Materials and Finish team. “Every year we work on hundreds of new colors, but maybe one or two make it,” she says. They dream up colors for things like Nest Minis and Pixel phones and develop them from scratch. Their goal is to create colors you’d love to see, not hide away in a cabinet or case. 


Copy of Isabelle_CMF_studio.jpg

Isabelle Olsson

Among the latest to make the cut can be found in the new Pixel Buds: Oh So Orange, Clearly White, Quite Mint and Almost Black. I recently spent time talking to Isabelle about why color is so important and where she finds inspiration—and of course, which Pixel Buds shade is her personal favorite. 

Where did your interest in design first come from?

There’s been one consistent thing I've always wanted to do, and that’s make people smile. When I was little, industrial design wasn’t a profession I was aware of, so I did things like stage design for plays, designing costumes and jewelry and building doll furniture. Eventually, when I went to art school, I found a way to combine my creative side with my problem-solving side, because I also loved math and physics. 

Nearly all of us have a favorite color, often starting when we’re little. Why do you think that is?

Color is the foundation for living. Look at flowers, some of which evolved to look bright to attract bees. There’s something about color that reminds us we are alive. And color is very personal, and so culturally specific to the setting and context we’re in. You even see different preferences depending on the climate you live in; if you’re in a hot climate you might prefer different colors than if you’re in a cooler climate. 

Electronics used to just be black…then black and white...then the occasional gray. What are some of the things that opened this space up to more variety? 

For a long time, tech for tech’s sake was enough, but I don’t think it’s enough anymore. There’s a reason when you go to a paint store there are literally hundreds of shades of white. We really believe that color, material and finish affect your wellbeing. 

Pixel Bud colors CMF studio

A look at a few sources of color inspiration the designers use.

At Google, we’ve set out to create products that fit into people's lives, and you just plainly can't do that without color. When we create our palette for the different product categories, we really think about where a product is going to live. Is it in your pocket or next to your bag, or is it going to live on a shelf or on that beautiful wooden cabinet you got from your grandma? We think about how we can fit in or stand out in that environment.

What are some color and finish trends you’ve noticed in electronics? 

There’s been this transition away from designing furniture to hide technology, like those media cabinets people shoved electronics in. Our goal is to design things that people are happy to have out in the open, that fit beautifully next to whatever vase you have, or a pair of earbuds you choose the same way you choose a jacket or a bag.

What real-world inspiration goes into color selection?

We try to live with the objects and the colors we design. For instance, when we design something for the home, be it a new color or a new shape, we place it on a shelf. Then every day for a week we walk past it, and we start seeing things we didn’t previously see. We don't just design something and look at it and then it’s done. We try to live with the objects and the colors. These days, we’re sending product models to our houses and living with them in our homes.

Google CMF studio

We also bring back objects from trips as inspiration. A toothbrush, a bar of soap, a little plate, a spoon—seriously, anything. Then in the studio, we have drawers for these things from all over the world organized by materials. We even have one that’s labeled “organic,” and that’s always fun to open because you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes it’s stones but sometimes I’m like, What’s that smell? Then we use these objects to make physical mood boards. It’s this idea of turning off your logic brain and turning on your intuition side.

How do you make sure you don’t jump onto temporary color trends?

One thing we do is look at markets for longer-lasting products. It’s like furniture: It’s not like you buy a new couch every year, it’s maybe every five or 10 years. We can be inspired by fashion, but it's important to know that it can be a very quick cycle. It’s important we ask ourselves if something is a short term trend or a lasting movement. 

What was the process for choosing the Pixel Buds' colors?

We had this vision of this little dot floating in your ear. It’s almost like little candies, so we had bowls of candy in the studio for inspiration. 

Creating colors for something that goes on your body is so different from creating colors for something you hold in your hand or put on a shelf; it needs to coordinate with different hair styles, different skin tones and how people dress. We knew we could love a color when we looked at it, but what happens when it goes in the ear? We did a ton of prototyping and experimentation and then narrowed it down to around 100 colors, and then narrowed it down to 25. Then we tried them on a ton of people and photographed them, and we started to see some common themes of what worked in the ear and what just looked good on the table. 

For a while we had two dark neutrals and I thought, Wait a minute, that seems like a wasted opportunity. That’s how we brought back the green color, Quite Mint, which is my favorite and hadn't made the cut at first. 

I know there are different internal names for colors. What were some of the Pixel Buds’?

We called Quite Mint “pistachio,” which isn’t quite actually the right color but we liked the name! And I think we just called Oh So Orange “sun orange.” 

I think my favorite device color name is Purpleish for the Pixel 3a.

That’s my favorite name to this day because it felt so to the point! In some light, it’s purple, in some it’s sort of white, so it’s purple...ish. I loved it. 

Head to the Google Store  to check out the Pixel Buds colors, which are available next month. (Not all colors are available in all areas.)

Meet the Googlers making coding education more equitable

Within the Education Equity team at Google, three women are changing the education landscape for the next generation of black and Latinx engineers—and I’m lucky enough to call them coworkers.  

April Alvarez, Peta-Gay Clarke and Bianca Okafor are part of my team at Google that’s leading two education initiatives: Code Next is a free computer science education program for black and Latinx high schoolers, and Tech Exchange is a semester-long program for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) where computer science majors immerse themselves in coding instruction on the Google campus in Mountain View. Both of these programs are part of Code with Google, our commitment focused on ensuring every student has access to the collaborative, coding, and technical skills that unlock opportunities in the classroom and beyond—no matter what their future goals may be. 

In the latest installment of The She Word, and in celebration of Computer Science Education Week (Dec. 9-15), we sat down with the ladies to discuss mentorship, the lack of diversity in tech and advice for young women of color looking to get into the coding space.

Why are the programs you work on described as “Education Equity"? 

April:When we design and develop programs for the Education Equity team, we start by acknowledging that advantages and barriers to success in education do exist, and that not all students have the same starting point. For example, when designing the Code Next program, we realized that access is a big barrier for Black and Latinx students interested in computer science, so we designed lab spaces that are proximate to where students live; we brought the labs to them. 

For Code Next and Tech Exchange, we focus on helping students cultivate their tech “social capital” (meaning their networks of connections) by bringing in folks who work in the tech industry and connecting them to one of our students through our mentorship programs. 

What are Code Next and Tech Exchange doing differently compared to other coding education programs in the space? 

Bianca: From the beginning, Tech Exchange has focused on providing an immersive and enriching experience both inside and outside of the classroom. The program takes a thoughtful approach to engaging the HBCU/HSI students with social and career development programming to further bolster and add meaning to their experience on Google's campus. We make an effort to expose students to a variety of community groups and product teams to broaden their perspective on opportunities available to them in the tech industry.  

Peta:With Code Next, we work with students from 9th-12th grade in a physical lab close to their homes and communities. These labs were intentionally built by Google and architects experienced in designing inspirational learning spaces. Our goal is to expose youth traditionally underrepresented in the tech industry to the wonderful world of computer science and give them the agency to immerse themselves into the areas that most interest them. We met our first cohort of students when they were in middle school, and they’re now applying to college! 

When you look at a Code Next student’s resume, you will see the impact of our program—they take computer science classes at a Code Next Lab, they work with a Google mentor, and they spend the last few years of high school immersing themselves in emerging tech like app development, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and more.

You all came from different industries to work in this space—April from K-12 schools, Peta from government and higher education, Bianca from her earlier years in Google’s R&D departments. How does that affect the work that you do together? 

April: First, it makes for a fun and interesting team to be a part of! Second, it allows us to make design decisions from multiple angles and perspectives. When I’m making decisions, I’m thinking about learning outcomes, the student experience and the educational pathway. Bianca and Peta do this as well, but they’re also able to chime in and share industry knowledge and experience, and then work this into the design of the program.

The tech space is working to improve diversity among its ranks. In your experience, what is one thing that could address that situation?

Peta: There isn’t one thing that will address the issue of underrepresentation in the tech industry.  Instead, there are a number of ways industry leaders can have impact. For starters, we can increase focus on collaboration and partnership within and across industries. We can improve education and understanding of how to foster a diverse and inclusive culture and more importantly, what it looks like in practice. We can broaden our understanding of the internal and external systems that lead to heterogeneous workforces, and better communicate the interventions needed for changing or dismantling those systems, to produce more equitable outcomes. Lastly, we can increase investment in finding and supporting the next generation of talent from underrepresented communities. 

It’s Computer Science Education Week! What’s one recommendation you have for young women of color who are interested in careers in coding?

Bianca: Mentorship is powerful. Seek out individuals who are doing the things you want to do. They can act as sounding boards and help support and motivate you. 

Lastly, what gets you up in the morning? Why do you do what you do?

Peta:It comes down to empathy. Initiatives like Code Next and Tech Exchange are near and dear to my heart. I am an engineer. I am where I am today because I was exposed to tech at an early age. I come from the same communities that we are trying to uplift.

Bianca: For me, it’s engaging with and supporting our students. I'm continually inspired and amazed by the level of talent, energy and enthusiasm our Tech Exchange students bring to the program and to Google. It's an honor to run a program that’s preparing the next generation of Black and Latinx technologists.  

April: Any time I get to see the direct impact of our programs, it motivates me to keep pushing and reassures me that all of this hard work is so worth it. In a lot of ways, I relate to our students and their educational experience, so it keeps me grounded in the work. I went to school with a lot of friends and family who hit barriers in their career paths, and being able to remove some of those barriers for a whole new generation of students will always keep me energized.